Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Getting out of the boat (1)

Apocalypse Now is the kind of film we quote if we feel gung-ho, but by doing so we may well be showing we've temporarily forgotten something we learnt watching it. I've hinted at a quote in the title, hopefully without compromising myself.

Before going on, I recommend reading yesterday's post. The argument is best read as a whole, but the upshot for gaming purposes is the proposal we make wargames more about war and roleplaying more about the role, by changing game form to be more immediate, overwhelming and instructive. The point is enlightenment.

I'm going to start with wargames because this is the idea that feels best founded already. A message to the wargamers then, to do some convincing. Imagine this delivered in a parade ground voice, up close, perhaps by John Cleese.

Are you as hard as nails? Can you take all comers? Have you got the stats and rules down so well you don't need to check? Every probability calculated and combo set up? Yes? Well that's not war, is it? At least not when the boots touch the ground and it gets physical. If your plans survive contact with the enemy - even with the landscape - you're doing it wrong. What we need is more shock, more horror, more blind terror. I'll bet you haven't felt much of that rolling dice. I haven't. It might do us all good.

With this first post I'm not doing much more than expanding a little on the rough sketch of the situation I suggested for wargames, making the intention more clear and tracing a possible route forward. Any feedback would be very welcome of course.

The key to my suggestion was almost total random determination of set-ups and appearances, with a lack of information on as much as possible. The idea is that players before a game select a series of tables or decks that match the context for the encounter, or the style of encounter they want. Each option within a set would be a way in which an element of the force available arrives, and the number used per turn would be random. My first thought is to have a die rolled and the players alternately gain an option in order of who has the initiative or whose turn it is. If a one is rolled, one player only receives a card. War isn't fair after all. Units would be placed according to option. To clarify this, I'll expand on the patrol idea from yesterday.

If there are no other units on table, place one unit within its movement distance of the centre of the table.
If other units are on the table, place the unit within its movement distance of a randomly determined edge, but no closer than its movement distance to an opposing unit.
Take D3x2 counters, with half reading 'UNIT', and shuffle face down. Each player then places half the total number of counters anywhere within twice the movement distance of the initial unit. The counters are turned over; for each 'UNIT' revealed an allied unit is placed with one model on that point.

Still rough I know, but these are early days. We see here a player has less control of things we might take for granted at the moment, for example preferred marching order and optimal placement, which is entirely natural. Use of the elements would come before all other actions in a turn so appearing units could act as they usually would.

So the first step seems to be laying out possible sets, and the likely options within each. Here's what I have so far, and details may have developed since yesterday.

  • early war - amphibious assault, insertion, shock and awe, strongpoint
  • defence line - blockade, mines, patrol, psychological warfare, raid, tunnels
  • lightning war - armoured column, feint, mechanised warfare, supply lines
  • withdrawal - counterattack, demoralised, extraction, rearguard, refugees
  • siege - barricades, civilians, home, resistance movement, rubble, sally
  • consolidation - landing zone, survey team, partisans
  • unrest - conflicting loyalties, escort, hostage, patrol
  • insurrection - assassination, sabotage, terrorism, traitor
  • revolution - confusion, informant, mutiny, personal loss, propaganda
  • late war - experimental weapon, fatigue, raw recruits, reinforcements

This will need some tweaking in terms of naming and I'm sure far more could be added. To give a sense of the possibilities of this modular approach, here are some situations players might choose to recreate, with the sets they could use.

  • border dispute - defence line
  • invasion - defence line, early war, withdrawal
  • war of attrition - defence line, late war, revolution
  • occupation - consolidation, insurrection
  • peacekeeping - unrest, siege

Other ideas which seem more independent could be additional options on a separate table or deck, rather like the secondary objective or fate cards from Kill Zone.

  • air strike
  • biological weapons
  • crash landing
  • critical error
  • dangerous fauna
  • extreme weather
  • truce
  • jamming
  • sniper

Again, any and all feedback is welcome, especially from the military experts and game designers, but also from anyone with an interest, and that means all of us ultimately. Feel free to speak out of turn. For now...


C'nor (Outermost_Toe) said...

Perhaps scattering unit counters to determine location of people that have been airdropped?

ArmChairGeneral said...

Cnor - Yes that and making a random roll using both dummy counters and real counters so that your opponent doesnt know.

Lauby said...

man, totally digging this thought experiment.

There's a lot here I like (ALL of it, to be precise) - as much as I like playing a wargame for the strategic control and the mental challange, there's always a part of me that wishes the rules wouldn't get in the way so much when it comes time for creativity. The part of my that wants to sit down with some buds and bang out a fantastic story in an RPG session really appreciates the fun that uncertainty can add to a situation.

That being said, there's a very good reason the rules get in the way - its because of the impact of balance and fairness on playability.

There's a certain level of caution that would need to be taken during the design process of a game built on these ideas to ensure that the game works ALL the time, rather than in a discrete number of specific situations. As much fun as a game with these type of random elements can be, there's always a danger that the game can become 'not fun' if random chance and uncertainty haven't been properly implemented. Games that have a tendency to hose one or more of the players are pretty much the worst.

I've been through this in a few games.

As much fun as Descent: Journeys in the Dark could be, my group eventually stopped playing it after it dawned on us how frequently awful the game would end up being for one side or the other. Sometimes the hero's would get nothing but super items - there were more than a few runs where there was nothing the Overlord could do nothing to stop the heroes. On the other hand, I can remember more than few runs that had to be restarted due to the vicissitudes of the monster deck being very, very kind to the overlord. Essentially, there were far too many permutations of the adventures that ended up not being an actual game.

Granted, there were some HORRIBLE design decisions in that game, but that's kinda the point: the game wasn't well made.

Similarly, good ole' monopoly has some of the same issues - usually in the late game. After a while, random chance will put someone so far ahead they can't loose. I've been through more than enough 'games' of monopoly that ended in anger or frustration at foregone conclusions.

Conversely, there are games out there like Diplomacy that is ENTIRELY reliant on uncertainty. Diplomacy is an absolutely incredible amount of fun. Almost the exact kind of stressful and emotional roller coaster I think you're describing. You make all these plans and deals and then... maybe, MAYBE they work. Or maybe you get screwed because your 'ally' got his move order wrong. Whats more - there are no dice. All the uncertainty is derived from the simple convention of having to deeply interact with the other players.

Pen and paper RPG's are a good place to stick the uncertainty in. RPS's have many more readily apparent avenues to pursue the fun (as subjective as that is). Even in power gaming groups - the games aren't so much treated as a win/lose situation as they are a story.

Certain game types lend themselves to these type of mechanics, sure. But balance (which can be interpreted as fairness) is always a factor in the good ones. If the game isn't playable, then it won't be sustainable.

Bix said...

This really is a great concept, I don't have anything other than my interest to bring to the table right now, my brain is running on daylight saving at the moment; but I think you've really hit upon something.

I can see this approach generating the sort of knife edge thrill you get when fighting an end of level boss, or uber powerful creature in a computer/console game. The ones where victory is far from certain and the sense of achievement and relief when you pull off a win is overwhelming.

Of course you may also get the flip side to that which is much snarling and gnashing of teeth like when you shout at your console that its cheating and throw your controller in the corner.

Dice and sharpend templates incoming, duck!!

Porky said...

@ C'nor (Outermost_Toe) - There was a rule like that in early GW Epic for drop pods. You dropped a pile of markers and placed pods where they landed. I love the idea! Good reminder also that some kind of mass drop is needed; with 'insertion' I was thinking small introductions of special operation teams.

@ ArmChairGeneral - That's right. As far as I'm concerned too, you can't really overuse dummy counters!

@ Lauby - Where do I start with this? First I'd say you're right that it's a thought experiment. I'm not so interested in balance, and in playability only in that there ought to be at least a small group - initially at least - that want to play even knowing they might get badly beaten up.

As you suggest early in your comment, the key is story, and part of the fun for the underdog is fighting their way out of the corner or going down in the way that seems right. For the 'overdog' the challenge is to get the job done with minimal friction and move on. As I wrote, since when has war been fair? It's that realisation that I'd like, that not everyone gets a fair crack, that we can all get kicked and we might be the kicker even unwillingly, and what clicks in the mind as a result.

The comparison to Descent is a fair one, but in a wargame there is usually less frustration for knowing that the battle is only one part of the warzone and that over a campaign things will even out more - 'the battle, not the war'. There's also the issue of less attachment to the individual life.

With Monopoly I think the point is stronger. To overcome the sense of being powerless the design could include additional actions, like going to ground in 40K, but not limited to defensiveness, tricks that allow the underdog to give the over a stinging jab if they're not careful, or slip away for more breathing space. With the dynamism we're talking about here it ought to be easier to fit that in.

'Deep interaction' is a good way of putting it. Ideally I'd want the players to have so much going on they realise they're actually in the same boat, that they're allies against the situation itself. Because of course they are.

@ Bix - That's what I'm thinking - that thumb-numbing boss-battling panic at the end of the level, the straining to make it through. The snarling and gnashing needs considering as Lauby has pointed out; the form itself ought to partially take care of that. On the other hand, the idea is also to heap all of the worst of conflict on the player, and that has to include bitter loss too.

Paul´s Bods said...

Maybe a way of getting a bit of real tension and "OH OH !!!" into gaming would be that the victor keeps all...quite literally.

Jedediah said...

I can't speak for tabletop/war gaming, which I have never done. But in pen and paper, it's always nice to know that your character can die. Some gamemasters will do anything to save their players and some players will bitch when their character dies a justified death. Both isn't much fun. If my character sets out to risk his life, I want to know that I have a chance. Both to survive or to die. My character once had to defuse a bomb in a game of 7th Sea and believe me, when we were done, my hands were shaking.

Make your character vulnerable. Give him something he fears to loose, something he won't never, ever do and then use it/let the gamemaster use it. Many people try to build invincible characters and I've always felt that this was totally boring. I'm not sure this works for wargaming, but for pen and paper, it's great.

Porky said...

@ Paul's Bods - I read somewhere a while back about something similar, which I think was smashing a model when it would usually be removed. Not sure if it was only a thought, or whether it was actually happening. I'd bet that would focus minds! This is actually the simplest way to convey the message.

@ Jedediah - I agree with you completely. Tim at Gothridge Manor posted on the subject recently, here, and got some interesting responses. Loquacious at World of Wonder has also been hinting that a character's end is fated to come, and I'm interested to see how that will play out. I wonder how we could take what you discuss a step further even, and make the feelings of the character more fully those of the player?

C'nor (Outermost_Toe) said...

@Paul's Bods:

I bet we'd see a lot of low point lists in that case... Or more people making their own models. Not that either of those are bad of course.